My dad and his wife are Christians. Liberal Christians, all considered, but Christian enough that a well-worn bible was included in the pile of things being cleaned away from the coffee table by my step-mum as I walked in the door.
My sister, her boyfriend and I, who stayed over at my Dad’s place on the weekend, are atheists.
In fact, we’re almost hate-theists, primarily because of the extreme environment we were brought up in that was the instigation of divorces, career-changes and all round identity crises in our mid-20’s. That stuff takes a while to get out of your system.
The unwritten way to deal with this in our family is to just not talk about it. Possibly writing a blog about it is breaking the rule but hey… it’s working for us right now, tender as we all are from the tumultuous ‘church exodus’ years. I’m a personal fan of recognising that there are differences that will probably never change and just embracing the goodness that can be found in the moment.
Which is all fine until you’re all sitting down to a table of steaming eggshell pasta and Parmesan and rocket salad as a family for what appears to be the first time since your parents separated – since you all separated – and there’s that tiny breath of space, just big enough for the thought…
“Are we saying Grace?”
For those that don’t know, Grace is the saying of thanks to God for food before eating dinner.
Grace was a big deal in my family. No one was allowed to even pick at a piece of food before grace was said.
Every night, we, and whatever guests happened to be over at the time, would hold hands, eying off which dish we were going to reach for first, and Dad would ask from the head of the table ‘Who’s saying grace tonight?’.
Which is like asking “Who wants to present their talk to the class next?”
Because there is such a thing as a good grace and a bad grace.
A bad grace is a lazy grace, “Thank you god for this food amen.” If you gave a performance like that you’d most likely be told to do it again and properly this time.
A good grace typically includes a plea for children across the other side of the world, a mention of one of the family member’s recent struggles brought out from last night’s Sharing Time and a blessing of the cook, always Mum.
Fitting all that in before your sister squeezes your hand off is an art form.
When the final amen is said, everyone at the table chimes in with a hearty Amen and it’s all on for young and old.
I still feel strange sitting down to eat and just picking up a fork to tuck on in. When at a home cooked dinner with friends, I’m always the one chinking glasses or saying something stupid like ‘2, 4, 6, 8, bog in, don’t wait!’ to kick off the meal.
There’s something in that moment of acknowledging togetherness that is even more sacred than the saying of words to a non-existent being.
We try hard not to throw our atheism in Dad’s face without pretending we’re people we’re not. Sometimes though we’re not entirely sure how much of what used to be important to him is still important now.
I figured as a family that they most likely said grace together every night. If it was hard for me to give up the habit, I’m sure it was nigh impossible for Dad.
So we sat, the three of us, bowls filled to the top with pasta, forks untouched, chatting as if we weren’t all wondering what the next move was, until my Dad sat down and smiled around the table. He hesitated, then picked up his fork and began to eat.
We didn’t eat, out of love. He didn’t pray, out of love.
It was just a beautifully awkward moment of respect and space, both parties stepping aside to say ‘No, no, you go first’.
It’s not always the best thing to ‘sweep something under the rug’ or, as my sister would say ‘play happy families’ when you’re not. There’s a difference though, sometimes subtle, between covering up what’s really going on and just having respect for those things that are important to each other. I think you can tell by whether it builds a relationship or goes someway to destroying it.
His wife said out loud a thanks to God for the food as we shucked eggshell pasta onto our fork. The Christians responded Amen. The Atheists didn’t.
And then we all ate food together.
One Big Happy Family. (Just joking, that line’s for my sister. Love you.)